Grammar: Ellipsis

 

The ellipsis is the economist of the language, enabling us to avoid the unnecessary repetition of words. Thus –

      I was to take the east path and Steve was to take the west path

becomes –

      I was to take the east path and Steve, the west.

(See also the elliptical comma.)

Ellipses are common to both formal and informal English, but there is an important difference. In formal English (with the exception of quotations),
the omitted 
words in the elliptical sentence must be ones that would appear twice in the full sentence. In our example, these are the words was to 
take
and path

      I was to take the east path and Steve was to take the west path.

In formal English, then, we are allowed to omit only what would otherwise be duplicated.

There is no such requirement with informal English; words are simply left out –

      Seems like a good idea. (Elliptical sentence)

      It seems like a good idea to me. (Full sentence; no duplication of omitted word)

A few more examples might help reinforce the point –


Formal English

      He was, and remains, the greatest footballer ever. (Elliptical sentence)

      He was the greatest footballer ever, and remains the greatest footballer
      ever
(Full sentence with duplication)

      I believe that this party can, and will, win the next election. (Elliptical
      sentence)

      I believe that this party can win the next election and will win the next
      election
(Full sentence with duplication)


Informal English

      Fancy a pint? (Elliptical sentence)

      Do you fancy a pint? (Full sentence; no duplication)

      What if we repeat the experiment using only half the quantity of sulphur?
      (Elliptical sentence)

      What would happen if we repeat the experiment using only half the quantity
      of sulphur?
(Full sentence; no duplication)


Note that, in formal English, the omission of unduplicated words results in grammatical errors and, while these are rarely so serious as to confuse 
readers, 
perfectionists can feel annoyed with themselves when the errors are pointed out. For example 

      She has, and always will be, an incurable optimist. (Incorrect)

If we cut out the inessential and always will be, we are left with the rather odd –

      She has an incurable optimist.

What the writer has done is to exceed her allowance of word omissions. The full sentence, with the duplications underlined, would be 

      She has been an incurable optimist and always will be an incurable optimist

but the writer has also omitted the unduplicated been. Corrected, the elliptical sentence reads 

      She has been, and always will be, an incurable optimist.

Finally, the only place for unduplicated ellipses in formal English is in quotations, where a series of dots […] indicates the words that the quoting
writer has chosen to omit –

      The days that followed the flight of James saw even greater confusion in 
      England than the months which preceded the Restoration… Then there
      had been too many claimants to legal authority; now there was no legal
      authority 
at all.
      (G. M. Trevelyan)
1

The full passage, with the ellipsis underlined, reads –

      The days that followed the flight of James saw even greater confusion in 
      England than the months which preceded the Restoration or those which 
      ushered in the Civil War. Then there had been too many claimants to legal 
      authority; now there was no legal authority at all.

If the first word following an ellipsis begins a sentence in the quoting author’s passage but not in the original, its initial is capitalised in square
brackets –

      The days that followed the flight of James saw even greater confusion in 
      England than the months which preceded the Restoration….[N]ow there
      was no legal authority at all.

The use of dots to indicate unfinished spoken sentences is a feature of narrative and informal English only –

      ‘Well! I mean…’

 

____________

1 G. M. Trevelyan, England Under the Stuarts, Methuen, London, 1977, p. 21